I just know that some of you more musically-inclined BLOG TO COMM readers are probably frothing at the mouth o'er my posting of two comic book-related pieces in a row, but gosh darn it if your humble blogschpieler is just awash in Golden Age fun and games as we approach this holidayest of holiday seasons! Who knows exactly why I'm all agog over the early days of the costumed hero capers as we head off into a new year, but I'm sure having a swell time combing through my box o' funnies just like I did when I was barely into the double-digits and needed a pretty good reason to exist! And y'know what, given the outright energy and joy that these World War II-vintage titles are bringing me a good sixty-plus years after they thrilled an entire generation of young 'n upstarting mid-Amerigan kids (including my own father), it's sure good to know that such things, like Three Stooges comedies and Bugs Bunny cartoons, sure have a longer shelf life than the tons of drek being produced today that will only be remembered by equally-drekky people yet another sixty years down the line!
I dunno exactly when noted PLASTIC MAN artist Jack Cole (retroactively?) became one of the top names of the forties comic book scene, at least amongst the more analytical comic fans extant, but even before loads of self-important critics of the form like Art Spiegelman began writing books about him I'll betcha that the grubby Saturday afternoon barber shop kids knew he was alright. I wasn't even one of those type of young 'un's (my father gave me my own soup bowls as a kid), but for me Plastic Man was definitely a top ten superheroes of the World War II era contender, and although I never was the brightest bulb in the hardware store at least I knew enough that the artwork that was adorning these already skewered-beyond-belief PLASTIC MAN tales was something quite different from some of the rote rubber stamp drawings being seen in a wide variety of comic books from those then not-so-distant days. And even if some stupid-beyond-belief kid like myself could discern that, imagine what normal readers could get outta Jack Cole's vivid art and bizarro storylines that jumped a whole load of barrels w/regards to comic book development and the general anarchy inherent thereof.
If I'm not mistaken, it was the very late-1971 issue of DC SPECIAL (the cover of which can be seen to the left) that got the PLASTIC MAN revival going after that company first ran the character into the ground sometime in the mid-fifties before reviving him sans any of his original humor and swagger a good ten years later. Unfortunately by the time DC utilized PLASTIC MAN to his his finest capitalistic abilities in the late-seventies I had already long adjourned the comic book world for the safe confines of music, missing out on his ABC Saturday AM cartoon series as well as his very own title that I assume was flying off the shelves at the time. Dunno if I missed much (I don't think so...for some strange reason I think DC turned Plas into some nutcase wisecracking Bruce Willis India Rubber Man), but if the stories that DC were churning out during this time were any equal to Plas in his Quality comics days I probably ignored a totally wild Golden Age revival that will probably be gone for eons to come, especially considering the crevice the entire comic book industry has fallen into o'er the past few decades of utter rubbish being passed off as bold new innovation!
Naturally the very same industry, just like the ones that created movies, television and music, was at its best during its infancy whilst feeling itself out before creating some of the best "art" (in an affects you as a bumbling sorta lout kinda way) that has been seen in quite some time. And these early PLASTIC MAN sagas that appear in this special edition are inspiring enough, maybe enough that I'll continue buying up the various DC ARCHIVES PLASTIC MAN hardcovers even if the price is quite prohibitive. Besides his origin (and that of sidekick Woozy Winks, created as perhaps a Costello to Plastic Man's Abbot?) we're presented with three stories from the forties/fifties cusp that show just how much Cole's style had developed since Plas' debut, with even more of an exaggerated cartoon-y style than the originals yet just the right mix of humor and heavy-duty violence/intensity that I'll bet had the Werthams of the world coming down hard enough on such tomfoolery once the liberal fifties began falling into place.
And while I'm at it, I just flat and plain-out refuse to call Cole's artwork "surreal" as if such a term really would have any value here in the post-postmodern era. Of course since I rarely read anything written these days at least with regards to what the chattering classes consider haute art I dunno what Cole's style would be referred to as. For the sake of argument let's just say that it's something from the mind of an extremely imaginative artist who didn't need drugs or any other stimulation to come up with these vivid images of a man twisting into all sorts of strange conniptions while pitched up against grotesque comic book villians and situations that, like in DICK TRACY, proves that the early-forties were perhaps the apex of cartoons which unfortunately will never be repeated no matter how hard brainiac self-conscious wannabes try their darnedest!
And yeah, I know that some of this material has been reprinted a number of times already or will again be seeing the light of day in the near future, but ain't it nice to have something in yer cruddy mits that reminds you of the better part of growing up a seventies-era suburban slob kid, even if it was created for forties suburban slob kids to peruse in the first place! In order to keep the illusion going I better latch onto the then-current issues of ACTION comics as well as the final chapter of the Kree/Skrull wars in THE AVENGERS and read them all (along with THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES, another much-loved Christmas gift) on New Year's Day at two-thirty in the morning like I did so long ago, if only to conjure up old ghosts so to speak! (Playing "Bang a Gong" should help out, perhaps mixed with some Lee Michaels or whatever else was coming outta my sister's radio in the other room while I was reading these comics in mine!)
If you can't get hold of this particular DC SPECIAL or find the hardcover reprints too pricey maybe THE BEST OF JACK COLE (Pure Imagination Publishing, 2006) will help fill the bill. A 160-page softcover that pretty much span's Cole's comic book career, this 'un cuts a pretty good cross section as to what the guy was up to not only with the appearance of a few Plastic Man sagas but with some of the other titles that Cole was doing for Quality like his SPIRIT swipe Midnight as well as the Death Patrol, one of the strangest World War II series to ever see the light of day not only with one of the characters getting offed by the end of each story (something that Cole had the good sense to discard after awhile) but some of the most outright overly-characterized ethnic and racial stereotypes seen even by early-forties comic book standards! Really, after reading a buncha Death Patrol stories complete with characters such as "King Hotentot" and his "South Pacific" (!) islanders who I guess were transplanted from Africa not to mention some of the most grotesque portrayals of buck-toothed, stupid and superstitious Japanese outside of Timely, it wouldn't be hard to see kids volunteering to blow up Tokyo-area nunneries and orphanages after reading a few of these comics!
But putting aside such examples of un-hip stereotypes (after all, the mainstream entertainment industry is chock fulla MODERN DAY STEREOTYPES that were offensive ever since day one but...at least their "hearts" are in the right place) one couldn't do much worse than to ignore some of the non-Plastic Man art that Cole had been cranking out until his venture into PLAYBOY magazine and eventually BETSY AND ME before his maybe not-so-surprising suicide in the late-fifties. Cole's earliest work is much simpler yet hints at future glory (and in yet another stereotypical comic about a Chinese detective, a Plastic Man-like ability to stretch is displayed showing the shape of things to come, pun intended!), while all of his Golden Age hero material (even for a title not his own like Quicksilver) is loads better'n some of the hackdom that could ensue even at the best of publication houses. Even the later post-hero era stories (the "Angles O'Day" series as well as Cole's work during the horror era being amongst them) are perfect in their style and execution showing a marked improvement from even the already great early stories, and it's a real shame that Cole's most famous non-PLASTIC MAN work, "Murder, Morphine and Me" (the one with the "damage to the eye" motif that got Cole some anonymous national attention via SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT) ain't here because that one remains a true knockout just as "noir" as any of the best crime comics to come out of EC or anywhere else for that matter!
In case yer curious enough, here's a sample MIDNIGHT story that the comic art obsessive blog Those Fabuleous Fifties ran a few months back. See for yourself the screwball story lines, the striking art which on one hand has the same early-forties mystique of many of Cole's fellow Golden Age masters yet echoes some of the cinematic eye-popping wonder of Eisner. Not to mention Cole's penchant for wild patterns and 3-D effects!
Sunday, November 23, 2008